Australian church abuse victims allowed to attend Rome hearing

Australian church abuse victims allowed to attend Rome hearing
Pope Francis signs a cricket bat of Canterbury cricket team received from Cardinal George Pell at the Vatican
PHOTO: Reuters

Sydney - An Australian inquiry into child sex abuse agreed Monday that victims could be present when Cardinal George Pell gives evidence from Rome, as Catholic bishops called for him to be treated fairly.

Vatican finance chief Pell, who claims he is the subject of a smear campaign, has said he is too unwell to travel to Australia and will give evidence via video-link from Rome next week.

The Royal Commission, which is looking into how Catholic authorities in Melbourne and the Victorian city of Ballarat responded to claims of abuse, said it had received requests from survivors to be present for Pell's questioning.

"The Commission considers that to be a reasonable request," chair Justice Peter McClellan said.

Pell, formerly the top Catholic official in Australia, has always denied knowing of any child abuse occurring in Ballarat, where he was once based, including by paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale who abused dozens of children over two decades.

But the news that he was too ill to make the journey home to testify in person over alleged cover-ups during his time as the head of Australia's Catholic hierarchy was met with anger by survivors.

A crowdfunding campaign set up to raise Aus$55,000 (US$39,000) to send some to Rome to be present for his evidence was met with an overwhelming response; within a week, more than 4,500 people had given money and over Aus$203,000 was raised.

Pell, who was ordained a priest in the diocese of Ballarat in 1966, has given evidence to the Royal Commission previously and has stressed his willingness to appear before the inquiry.

He said a weekend report in Melbourne's Herald Sun that Australian police were investigating claims he groomed and abused five to 10 boys while a priest was "clearly designed to cause damage to me as a witness ahead of my evidence".

"The purported allegations have never been put to me by police," Cardinal Pell said in a statement issued Monday from his office in Rome as he called for an inquiry into their leaking.

"They are scandalous and utterly false. To learn of the existence of these false allegations through a journalist, following what must be a clear and deliberate leaking from official sources, is deeply troubling."

The Catholic archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, called for Pell to be treated fairly and heard respectfully.

"It is everyone's right to a fair and transparent process free of particular agendas, other than truth," Fisher said in a statement.

Fisher was backed by his Brisbane counterpart Mark Coleridge who criticised the "leaked allegations against Cardinal Pell" which he said violated his right to be treated in a just manner, The Australian newspaper reported.

Australia ordered the Royal Commission after a decade of growing pressure to investigate allegations of paedophilia across society, and it has so far heard claims of child abuse involving churches, orphanages, community, sports and youth groups and schools.

The current phase is looking at the response of Catholic authorities and Victoria Police to allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy in Ballarat.

In particular, it is examining the Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious order involved in six schools or colleges in the Victorian town, and its knowledge of alleged abuse.

The hearing heard Monday that 56 people have made a claim or substantiated complaint of child sexual abuse against a member of the Christian Brothers in relation to a school in Ballarat, with most alleged to have occurred between 1969 and 1974.

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